Collin County District Attorney Greg Willis has asked to step aside as the Texas Rangers begin investigating whether his friend and business partner Attorney General Ken Paxton should be criminally prosecuted for violating state securities laws.
In a motion filed Monday in Collin County district court, Willis asked Judge Scott Becker to appoint a criminal district attorney pro tem in his place as investigators probe Paxton, who admitted last year soliciting investment clients for another friend and business partner without properly registering with the state. Paxton was "reprimanded" and fined $1,000 by the State Securities Board.
Willis' motion notes the request is somewhat unusual because a criminal case does not exist from which Willis can ask to be removed. Instead, Willis said he is seeking recusal in response to Travis County's referral of the case to Collin County, as well as a complaint by a "political group" thought to be the liberal Austin-based watchdog group Texans for Public Justice.
"Normally any recusal considerations are prompted after a law enforcement agency’s submission of an investigated case to our office. This has not happened," Willis wrote. "Nevertheless, now that an investigative agency has been tasked to investigate this matter, and to avoid any potential appearance of impropriety arising from his business and personal relationship with Ken Paxton, the undersigned Criminal District Attorney of Collin County respectfully requests this Honorable Court to appoint a Criminal District Attorney Pro Tem of Collin County in this matter."
A criminal district attorney pro tem is seen as less beholden to the person stepping aside than a special prosecutor, which some have called for given the relationship between Willis and Paxton.
If accepted, Willis' request means he will not be involved in any potential prosecution of Paxton in Collin County.
Earlier this month, Willis said he had asked the Texas Rangers to "follow up" on allegations referred to his office about Paxton. That move came shortly after a letter surfaced indicating a Collin County grand jury was interested in Paxton.
In January, the Travis County district attorney's office shut down its investigation of Paxton without bringing criminal charges. It then sent a referral letter reiterating the allegations — not the same as criminal case — to Collin County, where Paxton copped to breaking the law.
Paxton spokesman Anthony Holm emphasized earlier this month that Collin County still has not received a criminal case on which Willis or any other prosecutor can take action. Holm did not return a call late Tuesday.
Willis first disclosed his request for recusal in an interview Tuesday with The Dallas Morning News.